This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.
If you are a native English speaker learning a European language for the most part you can look at writing in that language and make a guess about how to read it out loud. If you are lucky it may be similar enough to actually know the meaning – like “le menu” in French. This gives us more of a fighting chance when learning languages with the Roman alphabet.
First day in China? Try to do this? Haha, sorry buddy you’re illiterate! In Chinese it at first seems like this is impossible.
How can you look at a sign in the street and guess its meaning and how to say it? The surprising thing is that you can.
I was so excited when I realized this as it allowed me to order totally random items on menu by being able to (more or less!) sound out the name of the menu item without knowing the characters beforehand.
Protip: random Chinese menu ordering is a great game. Play it with your friends. You know you are winning when the waitress frowns at your choice and asks “Are you sure?”
Introducing the Phono-Semantic Character
In a previous article on Chinese radicals we looked at how characters are actually composed of smaller pieces that have their own meaning. One thing I held back on was the fact that these pieces can also give us a hint about how we say the character!
What is this black magic you ask? The secret: phono-semantic characters.
Unfortunately phono-semantic characters is an awful name, making a relatively simple concept sound really difficult. Phono-semantic is a fancy way of saying Sound-Meaning, which is exactly what these characters gives us. We get both a hint to the meaning of a character as well as how to pronounce it. I think that part of the reason more people don’t know about them is the rubbish name.
So these can’t be that frequent right? Otherwise you would have heard of them. Well actually 90-95% of characters in Chinese are phono-semantic in some way. They are the single largest set of character types.
The other types include characters that look like what they are (like 木 for tree and 火 for fire) and characters that represent concepts ( like 休 “to rest” looks like a man leaning against a tree). These are the type of characters that are first learned because they are really cool!
These type of characters also makes Chinese seem really easy – it’s all just pictures right!? These characters make up only around 5% of the language though, the rest being phono-semantic. Thankfully phono-semantic characters actually make the language easier than if it was all picture-based because it allows for a more logical structure.
This actually makes sense. As the language progressed and more complicated concepts were required it must have been really hard trying to think of ways to draw the concept or try to represent it symbolically. Drawing the sun, the moon or a woman is easy – drawing things like modesty, religion and justice is much harder.
Instead a character like 谦 “modest” is phono-semantic. On the left is the semantic part – in this case 讠meaning “speech” (or 言 in Traditional) which tells us that the character has something to do with speech. In this case it is probably because modesty is considered an aspect of speech – to talk
On the right is 兼 which means “unite”/”combine”. We’re less interested in the meaning here though than we are with its pronunciation. 兼 is pronounced jiān. 谦 “modesty” is pronounced qiān. Both contain the same final -ian and are said with the same first tone. Nice!
This can’t be common right?
This is not a fluke. Don’t trustme? Head to HanziCraft, which is a neat character decomposition tool, and try it yourself. In fact, even if you do trust me go try it out anyway to get a feel for how extensive this is.
Stick in a few characters to see if the pronunciation of the pieces of a character resemble the whole character’s pronunciation. It could be a similarity in the initial (b-,p-,m-,f- etc.), in the final (-a, -i, -o, -iao etc.) or in the tone. If you are lucky it will be more than one of these.
The phonetic (sound) piece of a character gives us a hint. When we are very lucky we’ll get lots of help – 青 is an example of this. If it appears in a character (晴，情，请，清） then chances are that the pronunciation will be qing, though it won’t tell you the tone.
Other hints are less useful but still get you in the right kind of area. Instead of guessing between 440 initial/final combinations multiplied by 5 tones (including the neutral) which is about 2,200 possibilities you’ll suddenly be in the right ballpark.
Ordering food using phono-semantics
Getting into the ballpark is all you need, especially if you know any of the characters around the character that you don’t know. This is what will allow you to really get away with bluffing! Say you are trying to order something on a menu like 干煸豆角.
This is the first thing I ordered by guessing a character. In this case I already knew 干， 豆 and 角 but not the 煸 (biǎn). I did however know that 篇 (“chapter”) was said piān and 遍 (measure word for “occurrence”) was pronounced biàn.
Recognizing the 扁 allowed an educated guess that the second character in 干煸豆角 was -ian and probably b or a p. I had no idea of the character so used a first tone (incorrectly). By using the guessed character in the context of the rest of the word though I was understood immediately and the dish was successfully ordered.
This may seem like cheating or at least fudging it a bit. And it is! But it’s a way to begin communicating in Chinese as quickly as possible. Instead of just pointing at the menu and saying “one of those please” I was able to give it a shot and be understood.
I then asked the waitress to repeat the word back for me, which allowed me to get the tone correct for next time. Much better than checking in the dictionary and disrupting the flow of communication or, much worse, not communicating at all!
I could go through lists of characters that have these phono-semantic pieces. However, because these characters make up 95% of the language I’d basically be delivering you a dictionary. I suggest you go play around in a dictionary that has decomposition abilities (Pleco or YellowBridge) or do some decompositions on HanziCraft to prove to yourself that this really exists.
As you become more familiar with using the pieces that make up Chinese characters (we gave resources in this post about how to break down characters, you’ll become better and better at guessing both meaning and pronunciation.